On Not Blaming Putin

Throughout his three terms as Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin has always found clever ways to use media coverage for his advantage. Whether he is shown wrestling, hunting tigers or riding with his shirt off, everything is done to leave Russians with the impression that their President is a strong and fearless leader. About ten days ago, the following news reached the US-press:

In a video that was putatively leaked, posted on a pro-government website and later shown on a state television news channel, Mr. Putin was shown berating the ministers in harsh language, saying they must do more to fulfill his election pledges on social policy. “If we fail to do it, it means that either I’m ineffective or you are, and I tend to believe the latter,” he said.” (WSJ, April 17)

It is fairly obvious that the video was planted rather than leaked, and intended to bolster Putin’s popularity. The message is clear: The President is doing all he can and has everyone’s best interest at heart. If things are going wrong, it has to be the fault of incompetent bureaucrats. What makes this message so effective is that it builds on a tendency to not blame leaders for government failure that has been fostered in Russian collective consciousness for hundreds of years.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Tsar was revered by large parts of the peasant population as god-like. Any crises and hated government policies were generally attributed to evil advisers and ministers. After all, the thinking went, the Tsar himself wanted only the best for his people and surely had no idea what policies ministers maliciously implemented in his name.

Stalin built on this tradition in the 1930s. Whenever one of his policies backfired, he swiftly blamed it on overzealous followers or supposed foreign agents in the state apparatus. Most famously, he had Nikolai Ezhov, head of the Secret Service during the great purges, tried and executed, claiming that the mass killings were entirely his doing. They weren’t, Stalin had signed off on them, but blaming unpopular policies on someone else worked. Many letters from the time testify that people honestly believed that Stalin had no idea about the horror going on in the country. The purges themselves were officially justified by arguing that Stalin’s wise policies had been sabotaged by foreign agents, who had to be removed.

Today Putin is following the pattern and surveys show that people are buying his message. While his party is highly unpopular and generally blamed for the sluggish progress in the still impoverished country, Putin’s approval ratings are comparatively high.

In most Western states, people tend to blame their heads of government for almost everything that goes wrong, often even for those things that are beyond her or his control. In Russia, a large part of the population does the opposite. Rather than blaming Putin for his terrible record, they prefer to believe in their strong leader and instead see his party and the bureaucracy as the problem. This is not to say that this state of mind is universal. Many Russians criticise Putin for his failures, as the protests of late 2011 show. Yeltsin and Gorbachev have been blamed by many for their ill-fated reforms and few people today think Stalin was completely innocent. And yet, there is a certain popular tendency to adore a leader while despising his ministers. The explanation for this can be found in Russian history.

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